While the commodification of yoga has long been a controversial topic, the monetization of it remains a bone of contention and frustration. Practitioners don’t want to (or don’t have the means to) pay a lot to practice it, but teachers want to get paid a living wage for teaching it and facilitators for facilitating it. Can we somehow find the balance?
“Why Yoga Is a Broke-Ass Business” an article from Michelle Marchildon being passed around the internets lately, tackles this very real conundrum and offers a few ways we can all share the wealth, with the number one suggestion being consumer consciousness. Realizing we’re not on our own here and that where and when we spend our dollars is how to keep each and everyone afloat.
Or maybe we just accept the fact that the philosophy behind yoga is counterintuitive to the capitalistic nature of commercialization. That there will be some teachers who just won’t make tons of money (or even enough to not have a second or third source of income). “Today, yoga is believed to be a lucrative career path,” Marchildon says in her post, but that’s where I have to disagree. I don’t know any teachers or wanna-be teachers jumping into the yoga game because they think it will actually be a well-paying gig. They may hope that it pays the bills, and may, unfortunately, look to Instagram as the path to success. There may be a few who reach celeb status, but for the majority, send your kids to college and you into retirement, it will not. Should it, though? We’ve seen what happens to those who do achieve multi-million dollar empires. They get swallowed up by their own power, like Bikram, or fritter it away by being too consumed by their own ambition and ego, like John Friend.
(If we really wanted to be “rich” we’d get rid of most of our material things and expenditures that we’re just used to paying by now: cell phone bills, organic produce, artisanal soaps, expensive yoga pants, yoga festivals, etc. But that’s another story!)
To make extra money, yoga teachers teach privately, hold retreats or lead teacher trainings. The problems there are that not everyone can afford private sessions, retreats are a nice vacay but the financial benefits don’t last long, and teacher trainings are good for exposure but they’re usually physically and emotionally draining and end up making more money for the studio, less for your pockets. If you’re popular enough you can travel around teaching workshops which, again, are super taxing. Or maybe even hit up the Wanderlust circuit, which we highly doubt pays anything truly livable, unless you can survive on feathers and body paint. This is why agencies like YAMA Talent exist. YAMA Talent is “the world’s first management company, booking agency and consulting firm dedicated to nurturing the careers of yoga teachers.” Sounds intriguing and even promising, doesn’t it? But as with the book publishing, acting and music industries that have similar freelance/management structures, a few lucky folks will be successful while others will keep treading water, paying more people to help them “make it,” and working their second job serving coffee.
That’s not to say you should just give up.
What if there was an industry standard where teachers were paid on a scale of experience and they could even save some money? We’ve had a push and pull tug of war battle with wanting regulation and not wanting regulation a la Yoga Alliance, and whether or not it’s even possible or makes any sense because there are too many lineages and methods to condense into a stack of requirements and hours. So, yeah, a Yoga Starbucks? That wouldn’t work. Though I won’t be surprised when Lululemon steps in with their ambassador 401k plan, that is, if ambassadors got paid.
Which brings me to free classes, cheap classes and the cost of yoga. Marchildon suggests that all of these free yoga classes, like those at Lululemon and those offered in the park in the summer, are spoiling everyone to the point that $20 sounds like a criminal rip-off. But living in NYC, yoga classes are still in the range of $20-35 and up and there are still people who can afford it, though they may be willing to do so less and less. The problem with the one-off free yoga with a random teacher every week is that it devalues the regular study and connection one might have with a primary teacher on a regular basis (not to mention the risk of injury and confusion those mass classes can invite.) BUT, banning free classes doesn’t seem like the answer either. In that case we might as well go ahead and call a boycott on all YouTube videos and online yoga classes. Plus those events are fun and a lot of newbs are more likely to try yoga this way. It’s helps make yoga more accessible.
Though a lot of studios are making thousands (average 200hr YTT costs $2-3k) on hosting teacher trainings every year, those free classes plus the influx of Groupon and other discount ops are taking a toll on the bottom line. And these studios need to make money, you know, to pay the teachers.
Something’s got to give.
Yoga High in the Lower East Side just put out a big message to their students yesterday. They informed them that going forward there will be no discounts at all, that it has been too hard to survive with the competition of free classes and that in order to pay their teachers a decent wage it’s just what has to be done. Their logic is, we all need to participate in the give and take — the something for nothing model is not sustainable.
Via their newsletter:
While the discounts might seem great from the perspective of the yoga student who wants to get a good deal, it really means that Yoga teachers are unbelievably underpaid ($20 per class in many cases at this point), independent Yoga studios are barely making it, and many studios are closing their doors in New York. YogaHigh is trying to stay open, and we’ve made as many sacrifices as we possibly can – for example, not paying ourselves for many hours of service while also putting more and more money into the business.
At this point, our only option is to ask you, our community, to start paying what we deeply feel yoga is worth. We feel that $22 per class is a fair amount, especially in New York City, where you pay $22 for a sandwich or a cocktail. We LOVE teachingyoga and would do it for free (and have!) but at this point we are losing money because of our prices and this is what we have to do.
We sincerely hope you understand and that you continue to enjoy your practice and your community here at Yoga High. We know that there are studios in the city that will always be below market price, but we hope that you would be discerning, and understand that just like the low prices at Wallmart have hidden human costs, there is always a reason why people are able to offer you free or cheap yoga. Someone else is suffering.
With that said, we do understand that there are many of you who simply cannot afford $22 per class or a commitment of $150 per month. In order to serve you and make sure that everyone can have a yoga practice, we will be offering a few $10 Community classes. We feel it is important to offer these as an option, and we hope that if you are someone who can afford the higher price, that even in Community classes you will opt to pay the full price of $22 instead. These classes will not be taught by teachers in training; they will be taught by 500 Hour graduates who will be paid for the service.
Who’s to say if this is the answer? (Maybe some economists.) We forget sometimes that the yoga industry is part of a much bigger economy relying on part-time employees and the cheapest way to do things as possible in the short term, despite the consequences. Some may think the Wal-Marts and the Starbucks are evil, but at least they have health benefits and strong coffee.
I have to wonder, is it possible for yoga, the one we teach, practice, dress ourselves up in, credit for our sanity, share on Instagram, to maintain its values and still make a living? Or is compromising our ideals the price we have to pay?
hollypenny is a writer, yoga practitioner and home practice advocate living in New York City. Her interests include taking long walks, meeting smart people and trying to make sense of the world.